A History of Theory and Method in the Study of Religion and Dance

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Kimerer L. LaMothe
Brill Research Perspectives
  • Boston, MA: 
    , October
     124 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A challenge to the field(s): Dance as religion

Why is it that, even today, dance is perceived to be distinct from religion—irrespective of whether the subject is tackled by theologians, scientists of religion or dance, or dancers and choreographers?

Kimerer L. LaMothe, a dancer and a scholar, analyses an array of literature on the relationship between dance and religion in philosophy, theology, religious science, anthropology, practical theology, and dance science. Her diagnosis: there is a conceptual dichotomy between religion and dance, which also dominates their respective studies on the subject. This dichotomy often goes unnoticed, and is only detected by close analysis. First, based on her philological research, she presents reasons that hinder western cultures from being fully aware of their habit of separating dance and religion. Second, based on her experience as a dancer, she has designed a unique theory and methodology to study religion and dance.With her capacity to be sensitive to her body in mind, she builds on the method of imaginative empathy, learned from the phenomenology of Gerardus van der Leeuw, and in the last part of her book, demonstrates the existential relationship between dance and religion. 

LaMothe first leads the reader through a rough historical outline of religious science. In chapter 1, she unravels why science in the form of reading and writing constitutes one side of the coin, and the human condition of “rhythms of bodily becoming” the other. She provides a theoretical and methodological paradigm to perceive dance as religion, which illuminates their close relationship.

Although this book connects to patterns of thinking that she has presented in earlier writings, such as her graduate work Between Dancing and Writing: The Practice of Religious Studies (Fordham University Press, 2004), her Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Reevaluation of Christian Values (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and her recent Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming (Columbia University Press, 2015), LaMothe does not merely repeat her former thoughts. In this new book, she proposes that the dichotomy between dance and religion is a construction that has its roots in the 19th century, in the emerging field of religious science, and its need to legitimize its own theory and methodology. Religious science was born in the colonial era, and had to respond to the phenomenon that people danced in other religions (chapter 3). 

LaMothe sets the stage, from a postcolonial point of view, when she reflects on the influences of colonial conquests, as well as the impact of European philosophical traditions. She looks at René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Søren Kierkegaard (chapter 2). Reading and writing were once deemed as instruments of rational thought, and guarantees of objectivity. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) was announced in a world of books. However, reading and writing are bodily actions, and they are means to interact with the world. LaMothe asks whether any of these thinkers were inspired by contemporaneous developments in dance, and determines that court dance, classical ballet d’action, or the waltz, are used metaphorically in the earlier philosophical works, but she finds no real dancing.

Then, when the early modern dancers came to the fore, conditions for a constructive relationship between religion and dance improved. Friedrich Nietzsche made several references to dance as religion meaning real movement (chapter 4). Dancers, such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, took his ideas seriously and searched for ways to live the spirituality of dance (chapter 5). Inspired by ancient cultures, they experimented with performances that transported the image of priestly dancers and with a creative flow of movement nurtured by a force called the love of god. “Dancing, for St. Denis is the action in which she knows her whole bodily self as (loved by) god” (38). 

Philosophy started to show an interest in dance, and has, at times, offered its reflections, as if it were a friendly companion. Kierkegaard borrows metaphors from the Danish ballet of his time, comparing Abraham’s faith with the paradoxical movement of a dancer’s leap that can be simultaneously explosive and graceful; directed at God and earth at the same moment. Love holds this paradox together. In real dance and movement, Nietzsche finds the power to be radically in love with life. While colonial powers were criticized at the end of the 19th century for destroying indigenous cultures, indigenous dancing gained prominence as resistance against oppression. 

Research on the subject then increased, and questions on whether dance belonged in religion were raised by Christian theologians such as W.O.E. Oesterley, who studied dance in the Scriptures (chapter 6). In Émile Durkheim’s work, religious science takes actions within a community into account for the first time. Whereas the focus before Durkheim fell on texts and artifacts, he understands a religion born from collective effervescence in dancing rituals (chapter 7). Dance is a social factor, for example, in the Aborigines’ society. Dance is religion, and functions as a strong symbol for societal values. Phenomenological theory and methodsintroduced a new stage of thinking. Van der Leeuw uses imaginative empathy in his approach to the religions of indigenous peoples (chapter 8). 

LaMothe demonstrates her own methodology in dialogue with Van der Leeuw. After explaining what bridgework was accomplished between dance and certain religious studies in the 20th century (chapters 9 and 10), she proposes an ecokinetic approach (chapters 11 and 12). Studies about dance in the rituals of Kalahari Bushmen illuminate what it means to go forward with an attitude of respect and love, effective within a structured and comprehensive scientific approach, but these approaches should be completed by thick descriptions following the methodology of Clifford Geertz and empirical research by LaMothe herself, if not others.

To conclude, authors of Christian dance literature often try to legitimize their own dancing practices by narrowing the field, and ambivalently underestimating how strong anti-dance history is in both the church and science. Through her interdisciplinary approach, LaMothe opens the field in manifold directions. Her work stimulates a need for more research on the complex relationship between dance and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tatjana K. Schnütgen is theologian, lutheran pastor and dancer. She teaches interreligious learning at University of Regensburg 

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kimerer L. LaMothe is a dancer, philosopher, and scholar of religion.


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